Valentine's Day in Kabul
KABUL, Feb 15, 2008 - Five young Afghan women slipped out to lunch in an upmarket Kabul eatery on Valentine's Day, each wearing a red scarf in a wink to the day of love -- a difficult pursuit in Afghanistan.
"It was fun. We also bought a cake," said one of them, a 26-year-old employee of an international nongovernment organisation who asked to be called Jamila to hide her identity.
The red scarves were a sign known only to this group of friends whose brush with foreigners introduced them to Valentine's Day -- an event largely unknown in Afghanistan, where love outside of marriage is taboo.
Three of them even have boyfriends but it would be a scandal if their parents found out.
They had bought the guys gifts to be handed over at an early dinner, Jamila said. "But, of course, it is a secret occasion that no one is meant to know about except us."
Sharifa, another modern Kabuli girl, told her relatives she was having lunch with her best girlfriend. "She is trusted by our family," the 23-year-old said the day before February 14. "Instead I will go out with my boyfriend."
Her lunch was a daring breach of cultural and religion in a society where rigid custom means unrelated girls and boys rarely mix and marriages are fixed by parents.
But even though the tatty winter roses in the capital's famous Flower Street were not dressed up for love this year, Valentine's Day is creeping into modern Afghanistan -- although still under the radar of the conservatives who rail against it in other Islamic countries.
"Our society is driven by strict traditions," said Jamila. "Even families willing to give freedom to their children refrain from doing so to avoid scandal and criticism."
Afghanistan's decades of war and turmoil, and the rule of the hardline Taliban, imposed another layer of conservatism on an already strictly religious society.
"It takes time, I suppose decades, to catch up with the caravan of civilisation of the rest of the world, to transform century-old practices considered as family pride to the needs of today," said Mohammad Farid, 31.
Violations of these customs can result in "honour killings", in which families kill a woman deemed to have insulted the family name. There are no figures for this kind of murder but hundreds are believed to go unreported to police.
Farid, a property dealer, is unmarried -- rare in Afghanistan for someone of his age although many men have to save for years to afford the costly and lavish weddings dictated by tradition.
He would not say if he had a girlfriend but he lamented the lack of places to take a date.
"If you are rich, you can rent a room in a high-class hotel to have private moments, otherwise you use telephones or SMS (instant messaging) as the only means of private communication," he said.
Even in Kabul -- a bubble of modernity in mostly rural and illiterate Afghanistan -- cinemas, concert halls and public parks are off limits to women and said to be frequented only by "bad men."
"The only place a boy and a girl feel comfortable to talk to each other, without fingers being pointed at them, is the university campus where they together as classmates," Jamila said.
Despite the restrictions on couples, love is all around in Afghanistan: there are new television soaps with romantic intrigue, Bollywood movies and sometimes-racy music videos, as well as ancient Afghan love poems and ballads.
The conservatives, including in government, grumble about "unIslamic values" and disrespect of culture.
But youngsters here, as anywhere, find ways to "break the chains," Farid said.
"Some daring couples take the risk of trying of make time for themselves, going to each others' houses while the rest of the family is away, driving around in their cars or meeting up at shopping centres," he said.
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